When the Nats deserted their ‘Country’ people 

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John “Black Jack” McEwen… since McEwen’s time, the Nationals leaders have gradually lost all hands-on connection with that great world across the divide.

“There’s one great mission that cries out for leadership: it’s the transition demanded by climate change – the massive national effort needed to harness all our human and material resources into a blueprint for the future,” writes “The Gadfly” columnist ROBERT MACKLIN. 

JOHN “Black Jack” McEwen, the last great leader of what was then the Australian Country Party, was troubled. It was late at night in his big, gloomy office in Old Parliament House. 

I had joined him as press secretary a few weeks before Harold Holt took that fateful swim. He’d taken over as Prime Minister before the Libs chose John Gorton and now, some months later, moves were afoot to change his beloved ACP’s name to the National Party.

While he understood the activists’ motives in seeking to broaden its appeal in the wake of the population drift to the cities, he had one abiding fear. 

“The moment you do that, Rob,” he said, “the very next day someone will start up a new one calling themselves the Country Party.”

Well, as we now know, that didn’t happen, at least not with the speed that he foresaw. Instead came a bunch of mini-parties calling themselves the Shooters and Fishers, One Nation, Katter’s Australian Party and other variations on the theme. In Queensland they joined with their coalition partners to become the Liberal National Party. 

So, the result was the same. The ACP gave away its “Country” identity for a hill of beans; and despite the occasional electoral blip it lost that all-important cohesion born of undying support for the man and woman on the land. And today they’re a donkey’s breakfast.

It would be easy to blame the leadership. Since McEwen’s time, the party’s leaders have gradually lost all hands-on connection with that great world across the divide. 

Doug Anthony stayed in touch, as did Ian Sinclair (just) and Ralph Hunt. But then they passed in a sad array, oddballs and second raters like Charles Blunt, Tim Fischer, John Sharp, Mark Vaile, John Anderson and who remembers Warren Truss? 

Now it’s Barnaby Joyce, an accountant, Michael McCormack, a journalist, with a Littleproud deputy, a former banker. It’s like a big balloon with a hole in the bottom and all we can hear now is Barnaby’s blubbering splutter and McCormack’s mousy squeaks.

Not word about the great policy ideas that made Black Jack and his team the active ingredient in the Menzies-McEwen coalition. 

It was they who sparked the initiative in 1956 – against both the ALP and many Libs – to turn our export trade from a fading Britain to a rising Japan. 

It was McEwen and his Country Party who provided the tariff protection to create the manufacturing industries that employed the migrating millions from Europe that changed Australia forever. And it was McEwen and his Trade Department who led the nation into the shipping container revolution saving untold millions in transport costs to and from the nation’s ports.

Perhaps his protectionism stayed a little too long at the fair. But as we say farewell to all that expertise from Holden’s departure, perhaps it required a figure of McEwen’s stature to grab the opportunity of developing an electric or hydrogen car; and to design and build our own warships instead of sinking billions into a French submarine. We did it for our surface ships, so why not the subs? It’s the big ideas like that which bind a party to its cause and to its leader. 

The current crop are bereft, yet there’s one great mission that cries out for leadership: It’s the transition demanded by climate change – the massive national effort needed to harness all our human and material resources into a blueprint for the future – a true bonanza for the men and women of all the land.

Is there, perchance, another John McEwen in the house?



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Robert Macklin
Journalist and author. Contact robert@robertmacklin.com

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